May 2006

The era of big government is alive and well. You might think that after dominating all branches of the federal government for more than a half decade, Republicans, who like to talk big about lean and limited government, might have taken Leviathan down a few notches. But life under Bush has been less than a dream for conservatives who agreed with the Gipper when he said “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Republicans under Bush have tallied up a budget deficit of historic proportions, added an enormous entitlement to an already unsustainable system, created a vast new security bureaucracy, and strengthened Washington’s grip on local schools. Are Republicans selling out and failing to lead, or are they just giving voters what they want? Does the spirit of Goldwater flicker still in the breasts of Republicans? Or is the Contract with America stamped null and void?

Former Bush speechwriter and bestselling political author David Frum starts this month’s discussion with a lead essay on whether the window of opportunity has closed for small-government conservatives. Joining Frum in the conversation this month we have Bruce Bartlett, author of the controversial book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy; political writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, proprietors of The American Scene blog, and joint authors of a forthcoming book on “Sam’s Club Republicans”; and David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.


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Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”